05/10/2007 07:25 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

War Means Always Having to Say You're Sorry

It's touching to hear an Army commander say he's sorry.

On Tuesday of this week, U.S. Army Colonel John Nicholson, commander of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, apologized to Afghans whose relatives were killed in Nangarhar province on March 4, when U.S. troops opened fire after a suicide car bomb exploded beside a Marine convoy headed from Torkham to Jalalabad. Though not a single marine died in the attack, nineteen Afghans were killed and fifty others were injured.

"This was a terrible, terrible mistake," said Colonel Nicholson. "And my nation grieves with you for your loss and suffering. We humbly and respectfully ask your forgiveness." He also said that each grieving family would receive the equivalent of $2000.

That was Tuesday. On Wednesday, Afghan officials stated that an American air strike on Taliban forces in the village of Sarban Qala near Sangin in Helmand province had killed twenty-one civilians. But according to Sergeant Dean Welch, a spokesman for the American command at Bagram Air Base, none of these civilians deaths has been "confirmed," so no investigation of them has begun. When and if they are confirmed and investigated, relatives of the dead may presumably look forward--in a couple of months-- to yet another apology from an American commander and perhaps a few thousand dollars too.

But no amount of money can make any such apology meaningful until and unless it is backed by a resolution to stop showing reckless disregard for human life.

Does anyone remember what President George W. Bush said about civilians on the eve of our invasion of Iraq four years ago? He said that American forces would take the greatest possible care to avoid inflicting civilian casualties. But our very first act of ":shock and awe" was to bomb the densely populated Baghdad neighborhood where Saddam Hussein was thought to be hiding. While missing Saddam we killed about thirty civilians. And that was just the beginning. To this point, the war in Iraq has killed 753,209 Iraqi civilians and seriously wounded 1,355,776. In other words, the war has claimed over two million Iraqi casualties -- about one for every twelve people in the country. An equivalent death-and-severe injury toll for this country would be 25 million people. And if you count both of the wars we're fighting, about 267 Afghans and Iraqis have been killed for every person killed in the attacks of 9/11.

Those figures come from, a web site that strives to do carefully what the Pentagon has never done at all: count civilians killed and seriously injured in the wars we are waging. If the Pentagon truly cared about such deaths, it would not only keep close track of them but also forbid our troops to do what inevitably takes civilian lives: bombing in populated areas and shooting at random when attacked. But the Pentagon will never issue such an order.

Unfortunately, the Unknown News site does not clearly distinguish between civilians killed by American forces and civilians killed by insurgents. But even without that distinction, incidents like those that have just occurred in Afghanistan show that the Pentagon will do nothing to stop its own part in the slaughter of Iraqi and Afghan civilians -- except to issue more apologies.

How long do we expect the Afghans and Iraqis to go on forgiving us?